59-One Foot in Front of the Other

 

I discovered that I could, in fact, walk. As long as I breathed carefully and kept my hand pressed against my side—which was fine, I wasn’t ready to know more about the wound anyway. I followed the soldiers to the alley and considered sheathing Shiharr but the movement to reach my back was far too much. The dagger stayed in my hand, useful for nothing but catching the light of the moon.

Quill joined me, “That’s all of them.” His voice was low, “How many wounded?”

I looked at the men, two of them were heavily leaning on their peers. “At least two.”

He nodded. “Not bad. Let’s go, then.”

I realized suddenly that I was still supposed to be leading, so I started down the alley. My ambitious steps were quickly tempered by the pain in my left side and my shoulders hunched. But I kept moving. The men followed, trailing behind us like the train of a gown…only louder and more grim. By the time we reached the end of the alley I’d sort of found my stride, perfecting the art of moving around whatever blasted betrayal was going on down there. “Hoods up, fall in formation, best you can,” I tossed the command over my shoulder, and was aware of it being passed behind me. Then I stepped into the deserted street and marched. Or. Tried to march. Shiharr still bare in my hand.

I felt Quill’s touch on my elbow, “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” I replied. But the word came out like a gasp.

He did not remove his hand, and I didn’t say anything else. Talking would only mean having to refill my lungs sooner.  I hoped Quill was right that the garrison would divide its forces between the city and the land directly outside the city walls. We had exited quite close to a city wall, but instead of making a break for the countryside we were wending through the city, toward the slums near the warehouse district and the river. We had a head start, of course, but were moving more slowly than a search party ought. And a few of the soldiers were being carried, which was certainly not very search party like. I tried not to think of how much walking we had to do. Instead, I wondered how things were going for Namal: Had the Bandui River been agreeable, and had he been able to persuade any of the prominent nymphs to trust him? Though, I didn’t know what he could possibly gain by lying to them. We were relying on the nymphs to find us a safe place in the slums, and also to start spreading the word to get out before the Nether Queen could take her revenge. Had the ravens reached our father and Ayglos? Would the messenger birds even be discovered before morning? Would that be soon enough? It would have to be. Just like my hand holding my side was enough. One foot in front of the other—not too fast. Breathe, not too deep—not too fast.

The prison bell grew faint behind us, and the city grew less fine. Dogs barked here and there, and there were undoubtedly legitimate squads of soldiers pouring out from the garrison to search the surrounding area. I struggled to keep caring.

“Oy!” a voice stage whispered behind us.

Quill stiffened and I slowed hesitantly.

“Oy! There’s a group of soldiers coming behind us.”

I ventured to look over my shoulder. The speaker was the bearded thief. I couldn’t see anything behind us, but if he was right we needed to hide. I didn’t want to fight again—one, everything hurt already, and two, I didn’t want them to know we’d stayed in the city, or which direction we’d gone.

The thief came a step closer, “I have a place we can hide.”

“Alright.” I inclined my head. I was certain Quill would disagree, but he said nothing.

The thief didn’t hesitate. He took the lead and turned us down an alley so narrow we had to pass single file. On the other side, he turned right and trotted directly to the third house on the left and knocked. Nothing happened. He knocked again. When there was still no answer he stepped back and started eyeing the window. My feet slowed to a halt in front of the house. I could feel myself losing will. I wouldn’t mind going back to that alley and laying down.

Or maybe just laying down here.

I could lay down right here.

The thief stooped and gathered something off the ground and started chucking things at the windows. A light flickered to life inside.

I wobbled.

“Zare!” Quill sounded far away.

I tried to say I was alright, but the air just slipped away and I wasn’t sure where my legs were anymore. They couldn’t have gone far, though. Could they?

I heard Quill curse, and was vaguely aware of his arms around me. Then everything got very peaceful.

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